November 8, 2011

Tailwinds and traffic

Continuing the motivation that finally got me to break the easy habit of the Border Patrol route a couple months back, this time I turned my sights on Grandview, MO. to tackle the Super Big Gulp permanent route.  I have mixed memories about this route.  The last time I rode it, however, was back in 2008 - so maybe some of the negative thoughts would pass.  Only one way to find out.  Last time, the drama came right at the get-go:  back in '08, this was part of my near-600km weekend, where I tackled my September R-12 ride and the local MS-Society Ride back-to-back.  (my apologies, some of the photo links on that old post are broken - looking in to it soon).  Back then, I started the 200km route during evening rush-hour - and getting out of town proved both harrowing and frustrating.  Far too much traffic, and all of it unsympathetic to cycling pursuits as is normally the case and nothing new:  but, as a commuter I'd simply find a clever detour or back-road - as a randonneur, you have to stick to the cue sheet.  Just like poor weather or a lot of hills, I feel the same way about detouring around traffic - I stick to the route, period.  Yeah, it sucks sometimes - but that's part of the honor-system of the whole RUSA thing.  Back then, I remember not really feeling "relaxed" out on the route until well after the first control, where traffic finally died down and everyone was home and off the roads -- but, let's face it:  I started that ride at a weird time of day, something the route designer hadn't envisioned.  It's still a good route - and on a weekend morning, it's magic - the way it should be.

Cut to Friday, 3:50AM - I arrive, park, and unpack the van to prepare for a cold morning.  This was my first ride of this season where temperatures were below freezing, and I did the usual "pack everything" prep the night before, careful to be thorough - but not so much that I was paralyzed by too much choice.  The core was already handled -- I tossed back and forth a little on an extra layer for the legs, and decided against it.  Ultimately, I found myself perfectly layered up - shut the van, saddled up, rode up the street to the first control, and just about timed it perfectly so I minimized standing around in the cold morning air.  I slugged down a bizzarre (but effective) mix of black coffee and sugar-free Red Bull and then headed south on Grandview Road with a gentle tailwind helping me along.  No cars this time... no waiting... nice....

I think I've touched on this in previous posts, the differences in county design and maintenance - juxtaposed so clearly when you live in a metropolitan area that straddles a state line, the way Kansas City does.  I have positive and negative opinions about each approach, but from a riding perspective it gets tricky.  Missouri doesn't like to spend money where it doesn't have to.  Up north of the metro (and south, too) this results in nice, quiet two-lane rural highways that haven't changed much in decades - and where it makes sense, out where there is no traffic, its good riding.  When that same approach is applied to busier city centers the results are downright nerve-wracking for cycling.  Grandview, MO is one such city - and this is only really a criticism from a cycling perspective.  In Olathe, I recently watched the county, city and railroad partner on a massive project that completely elevated a level-crossing and widened the road underneath -- a project that spanned literally almost five miles in either direction on the rail line, and every street it crossed therein.  The road it benefitted still isn't one I'd consider bike-friendly, but the project as a whole seemed to improve the area and the traffic thruput.  In Grandview, however, specifically Blue Ridge Road, there are sections where you have nice, wide 4-lane opposed with a central turn lane suddenly funnel down to ancient two-lane that passes under a circa-1930's railroad tressle... and then it widens back out again.  Without traffic, it's actually kinda neat... because it hasn't changed in decades near those bridges --- but WITH traffic?  Wow.  I float back and forth between "it's nice that they haven't changed the heritage of the area", and "why haven't they updated this?".   It's an interesting region - and I don't have the space (and don't expect your patience) to argue pros and cons - the topography, the wildlife and surrounding forest, the character of the area -- they are distinct, and valuable, and I don't prefer change, generally... but, Blue Ridge is one of the only ways out of the city E/W and it can be harrowing on a bicycle at times.  Where was I?  Oh yeah...

Through the darkness and down Blue Ridge's nice, long descents (which I haven't ridden in years!) to State Line Road, and then south into the darkness near old Kenneth - startled by the air-brake hiss of an idling locomotive back in the trees near the crossing at 151st Street.  It's cold, but not terrible -- the tailwind helps with that, and the occasional roller.  I climb up to 159th and Mission, and then head south again through another glorious cycling destination of twists and turns and dives and steep climbs... Mission Road between 159th and 191st.  In the same vein as my comments a moment ago, but with the side-note that this is a generally low-traffic area:  I hope they never change this particular road.  If you live in the area and haven't ridden it - either from the north or south - pick a weekend morning, early, and check it out.  Approach from 159th, or 199th... and enjoy.

I pause at 199th for some food and a quick nature break.  The sky is miraculously clear... perfect... sharp, bright stars and planets above... Orion directly overhead... such a sight, out here without the light pollution.

199th west to Spring Hill -- overlapping the Border Patrol route, I have to remind myself not to instinctively turn south for Louisburg.  I arrive at the Casey's in Spring Hill, the first control, at 5:58AM... two minutes before they open:  nice timing!  (that's the c-store opening, *not* the control opening time... I'm not THAT fast!)  But, the Casey's clock is faster than mine apparently and their doors are already open and morning business is jumping.  The smell of *just* finished donuts, coffee and breakfast pizza slaps me in the face with a welcome blow of warmth and flavor... YES!  The best part... sometimes the only good part... of cold-season riding is the treasure of warmth and food at the controls.  Sometimes it's all about the hot coffee, I tell ya.

The wet, cold morning air had me shivering, despite the influx of hot coffee... a dangerous position to be in.  Cold is ok.  Wet is ok.  Cold and wet can be bad.  Only solution is to get moving again and dry off -- it's cold, riding along with layers unzipped, but getting dried off is more important.  Too many layers, though warm feeling, can backfire... hard to find balance, and a little out of practice.  Back on the road, things improve quickly after a sprint up a short hill. 

A quick zig-zag over US-169 highway south of town, and onto Old KC Road towards Hillsdale -- another great road that I sometimes wish was a little bit wider, maybe with a paved shoulder.  Ah, well...  traffic is surprisingly courteous, thanks perhaps to my ridiculous level of reflective gear.  Overkill?  I dunno... I'd rather not roll the dice, and none of it weighs anything, catches any wind, or gets in the way - so why not?  A little backlighting to the trees to the east indicates dawn is coming... back down to business.

Tailwind still in effect, I make haste - picking a good, sustainable cadence and sticking to my goal cruising speed of around 17.5-18.0 MPH.  Quick enough, but certainly not in danger of getting to the halfway too early -- attempts at that are scheduled for next year.  Yeah, I'm an optimist... but, part of me wants to try it again, arriving too early to check in.  Today, however, is about consistency and finishing with about the same average at the end as at the halfway.  Today, it would turn out, would offer perfect conditions for such training.  I was careful in days leading up to this ride not to jinx anything, but if I timed things correctly I was in for another super-rare, ultra-special, deluxe, surprise, happy-time double tailwind ride.

Hospital Road south of Paola comes quick, then Hedge Lane... some of my favorite pavement ...the sky is getting lighter and I'm feeling good.  Another railroad crossing at 343rd street, and southbound once again - until the road ends... this really is a great route if you can look past the "getting outta town" portion in the first few miles:  it's a rail-fan's delight, with ten railroad crossings (mixed between level crossings and bridges) in 100 kilometers, and several miles of parallel opportunity.  If you don't see anything on the way out, you get another chance at each one on the return trip.  Second, it's hilly enough to keep things interesting, but not a quad-crusher.  Third, you almost don't need a cue sheet -- nearly all of the decision points are "duhs", ending at T intersections - and where that isn't the case, the turns are well marked with highly visible road signs.  The only potential "gotcha" is a roundabout, but its not too bad if you read the signs.  There are also several more c-store opportunities than there are controls, which makes it a good winter route compared to more remote regions -- I didn't figure it exactly, but I think the biggest gap between gas stations is perhaps 15-17 miles, which is good if you find yourself cold or running out of water.. or needing to put water bottles in the microwave, if it's REALLY cold.  Perfect route.

I roll through Fontana, KS.  The last two visits to this tiny town took place in the dark back in '08... in fact, if memory serves, today's trip was only the 2nd time I'd seen Fontana during the day.

Thinking this town could use a Casey's...  franchise idea in my future, perhaps... no, not here... perhaps somewhere between Appleton City and Weableau, MO, come to think of it....

I'd have the only c-store in existance with showers, a locker room, drop-bag storage, a sleeping area....accessible via brevet card authentication.... Hammer Gel dispensers... the mind wanders...

Snapping to, back on a beautiful stretch of road near K-152... at the top of the western ridge of Linn Valley.  This view never gets old.  The La Cygne power generation plant, billowing steam into the cold air - confirming that the wind, as scheduled, was beginning to shift to favor my return trip.  WoooHooo!!

I dive down the fast downhills and proceed to hammer it across the flat valley floor - aiming for La Cygne before 9am, which I manage handily... 8:46am.  Probably more time off the bike than I should have had, but I'm not too worried about control efficiency quite yet, at least not when it's cold out.... a few minutes at 199th and Mission, at least 15 at Spring Hill, a few minutes at 311th and Hospital Road, a few minutes at LN-1095 and K-152.... nature breaks, snack breaks, star-gazing breaks... why not?  We ain't racin' today, just enjoying some spirited pacing while we ARE moving, I suppose.

I lose track of time at La Cygne, watch a train flyby, snack on grub, coffee, rest room break, a little indoor warmup - and then finally decide that I've lingered enough and get moving again.  It's different this time of year:  where in the summer I am anxious to keep moving to finish before the heat of the day gets unbearable, there is sometimes a little extra pause in the cooler months in the hopes that temperatures might improve.  I don't remember actively considering this, but maybe it was subconscious.  The nice thing about randonneuring - something I sometimes forget - is that you HAVE the time, generally, to rest up, get warm, etc.  That is, if you manage it properly... the criteria is loose, but a finish is a finish whether it takes 13 hours, or seven.  My personal trick, each time, learning from past close-calls:  get to the halfway, no matter what the cost.  Once you have that in the bag, you can then dawdle if you want or need to.  Results can and do vary.
The steam plumes at La Cygne have moved, slowly starting to point northwest... my tailwind for the return ride is confirmed, and the sun is getting higher.  Time to move.

The valley floor is tackled quick, and then the business of the hills leading up out of the valley.  I have to say, I prefer the climb to the east -- easier to gauge effort, perhaps -- and I'm still a little tentative about the knees these days.  After last month's Border Patrol where the saddle height and fore/aft was a little off, causing some post ride soreness that lingered right up to THIS morning, I had been focusing on high cadence during this ride to minimize impact and strain.  Things have been steadily improving since the October ride, tested with commutes and some long indoor resistance drills when I could squeeze them in - but the real test would be the hills on this route.  So far, so good -- but on the steeper stuff, it's just hard for me to keep a high rev going.  Standing up, or seated, however... when the pressure came on, things felt good, tight - and not sore.  Post-ride would tell the tale for sure, but I was hopeful.

Then, a few miles north of Fontana -- I'd stop and shoot the video footage that became the previous post... 
After that, it was time to get down to business.  

I checked my rolling time and did a little mental math, and figured I could probably still pull it off, if I pushed a little:  The sub-6 hour century, a personal milestone that I've used in the past to measure consistency and the ability to get up out of the usual commute average speeds.  Racers will scoff -- where sub-5 hour centuries are the norm, most likely... faster still, in fact, one of the most incredible performances I've ever witnessed was from an athlete at the Texas Time Trials in '07.  Patrick Evoe still holds a personally-witnessed record of the fastest century I've ever seen thrown down, and I'm almost certain one of the fastest by UMCA standards (Not to mention the course record at Texas).  When the 100-mile UMCA North American Century Championship launched in Cleburne, TX., while Tejas 500 riders were deep into their 500-miler, and I had already cashed in the chips and started crewing for Ort, Patrick came through the start/stop area after his first lap like a bullet train... and my (and others') first thought was... "wow!!... but he'll slow down".  For the next three hours and change, we were all proven wrong.  I've never seen anything like it.  The dude is FREAKING FAST.  Four hours and 13 minutes later, he was done with his 100 miles... an average almost hitting 24 MPH.  That's solo, during a non-drafting event, kids.  So, while I have a LOT LOT LOT of work to do before I even get close to shaving an hour off MY best century time, I'm perfectly comfortable with my sub-6 hour rolling time for now... because, for my long-term goals that's a comfortable 400-miles-in-24-hours pace.  OF course, I have to train beyond that speed to ensure that hour 23 goes as well as hour 3.... but, today, I'm pleased to have raised my rolling average speed from 16.1 up to the required 16.6+ needed to make it back to 199th and Ridgeview Road in 5 hours and 58 minutes.  Time to relax...

My secondary goal of finishing this one in under 10-hours total time was looking good now, too.  The rest of 199th went off well, but things changed when I turned north on Mission Road.  Normally a section where time can be made up -- not to mention BIG fun in the twisties -- I was surprised to see the road completely blocked by flashing lights, sheriff and local police, and power & light service vehicles.  I throttled down and coasted up, talked to the sheriff and was finally allowed to walk my bike across several front yards - well away from a downed power pole and overturned car resting in the ditch across the way.  Holy.... glad I wasn't around when THAT happened.  

Looking back south on 199th, after walking past the accident scene on the other side of the trees, and giving detour directions to a few of these cars waiting here for a chance to back up and turn around.  A local resident confirmed that their power was out - but she wasn't sure why.  Fate, Karma, whatever you want to call it -- I'm thankful I took my time at roadside breaks and controls in the last half of the ride, as any cyclist could have easily been "just riding along" when this happened.  Not sure if anyone was injured - but the ambulance was long gone by the time I arrived.  Hope they're okay.

After a 1/2 mile walk, I was on the other side of the drama, ready to get back at it.  Hills were in my future -- hills that give this route a reputation of being especially evil for the last few miles of a long ride.  After a long cool-down at the accident site, I also found myself resting again at 159th and Mission road - desperate for a rest room break, but finding no shelter or break from passing cars to pull it off.  While the clock was still on my side, I was going to have to work for my sub-10 hour 200km ride now.  Ugh!

Up Mission, to 159th, down to Kenneth, around the bend, across the tracks, up more hills towards 135th, then WHAM.... traffic.  I had hoped that, as alluded to in earlier paragraphs, traffic wouldn't be a concern at this point in the day - but I was wrong.  After all, it was 1:40 or so in the afternoon.... but, no matter... cars, cars, cars...  passing by a major interchange, several shopping complexes, apartments, and back down to narrow, unimproved Grandview roads heading across Blue Ridge itself, which I'd forgotten is UP for over a mile at a time in places... wow.  It was on the longest climb of Blue Ridge where my bubble popped... whoof, no more push.... keep going!

 Then Grandview Road... and why are all the school busses out, is my clock wrong??  Holy traffic.... finally back at the 7-Eleven past Red Bridge... and I'd actually, unofficially made it a smidge after 2:00pm....SO close!  but then, of course, I have to unpack get out the route card, pick out something to buy, and stand in line to pay... a LONG line.  A lot of people-traffic, too, here... so, officially, 2:13pm..!  I'll take it, though.

Seriously... a simply stellar, awesome, perfect, fun day for a long ride... a great time.
Feeling good, and looking forward to December.  
Stay tuned, and thanks for reading!

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